DAYTON, Tenn. - As conservation director for B.A.S.S., Gene Gilliland has a very important job this week at BASSfest, and the fish should be thankful for his work.
Gilliland oversees Bassmaster's efforts to keep all of the fish caught in the tournament healthy and make sure they are safely returned to Lake Chickamauga after being weighed.
"B.A.S.S has been in the forefront of the catch-and-release program since it started in the 1970s," he said Saturday just before the weigh-in began. "We're just continuing that tradition of trying to release as many of the fish as possible and get them back into the lake as healthy as possible so someone can catch them again."
While his job gets easier as the field was cut to 60 for Saturday and 12 for today, the first two days of the tournament were a challenge with 140 angers bringing in 500 to 600 fish weighing roughly 1,700 pounds each day.
Gilliland said the anglers are encouraged to keep the fish healthy in their boats' livewells after catching them by pumping fresh water into the wells and keeping the water aerated and cool. Anglers who bring in dead fish are penalized at weigh-in.
Once the fish arrive for weighing, they are put in mesh bags and kept in a series of troughs with aerated water, ice and salt to keep them healthy while the anglers wait to go on stage for their individual weigh-ins.
"Just like people, the fish's blood is a little bit salty," Gilliland explained. "When you put salt in the water, it makes the environment that the fish are in a little bit closer to what their blood is, so it helps them start getting over the stress of being caught and handled and weighed.
"It's kind of a first-aid treatment."
The system is designed to be as easy on the fish as possible and keep them alive.
"The only time they're out of water essentially is the brief time when they're put on the scales on stage," Gilliland said. "As soon as the fish come off the stage, they're taken to the release boat. When that boat reaches capacity ... the boat motors out of the backwater areas more toward the main river channel."
Bassmaster employees Russ Bradshaw and Ryan Hermecz work on the release boat, a pontoon craft fitted with four tanks with trap doors opening into the water.
Hermecz said one common problem involves fish losing their sense of buoyancy after being brought to the surface from deep water. This is fixed though a procedure called "fizzing."
"We basically insert a needle into the fish's swim bladder and let out some air to return its buoyancy," Hermecz said."Then it can swim upright in the water at shallower depth, and it takes some stress off the fish."
Gilliland and his team have worked with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency throughout the week to ensure state wildlife regulations are being followed. Chris Morton, TWRA fisheries manager for Region III, provided a hatchery truck to take the fish caught in the college fishing tournament on Watts Bar Lake from the weigh-in at Dayton back to Watts Bar for release.
"Our experience with B.A.S.S. has been great," Morton said. "They've been so willing to help. They were excited we were here, and we're excited to be here. They were nice to show us all their procedures they do so that we can keep the fish as healthy as we can.
"This is our first experience with B.A.S.S. in Region III, and we hope they come back."
With so many fish, having some dead ones is almost unavoidable, but even in that case Gilliland makes sure to help B.A.S.S. maintain its mission of conservation and wildlife stewardship.
"We have a guy that's been coming each day and picking up the dead fish for a charity church fish fry," he said. "So the fish aren't going to waste, but we hope that the number that we give him each day is pretty small."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.